by Bill Hand
Here’s a veterans’ program that’s going to the dogs. Literally. Paws of War is an organization that started (and is still centered) on Long Island, and that Jackie O’Brien and her husband Bill, a veteran and trainer, brought with them when they came to New Bern a couple of years ago.
The couple work to help veterans, active military and first responders train their pets – and sometimes connect them with pets who can become service animals as well as companions for them. While the focus is on dogs, Paws of War on Long Island includes cats as well.
"What we do,” Jackie said, is, "If a veteran comes to us – or an active duty Marine – needs a dog, we work with Local Shelters, the Humane Society and other organizations to find dogs.” In the short time they’ve been operating they’ve already matched five people with dogs, including an active duty Marine.
They meet weekly in open-air spaces (in Winterville, Jacksonville and in New Bern, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2514 at 3850 S. Butler Road) where Bill patiently runs a number of dogs and their owners through their obedience paces.
The dogs – and a session we sat in on included shepherds, a Malinois, pit bulls and others – are taught to obey both verbal and hand-signal commands. Among the lessons is teaching the dogs to not be easily distracted: a big, stuffed toy lion is set in their midst which, for a couple of the pets, is a hard "leave-it-alone” thing to resist.
The sessions are held on Saturdays in fair weather. Bill handles the training while Jackie takes care of scheduling, outreach and paperwork.
Many of the dogs are working toward certification as service dogs, but O’Brien says that isn’t the case for all of them. In many cases, the veterans and first responders simply want their pets to be well-behaved and social. "All dogs, whether they are going to be a service dog, a companion dog, or a therapy dog, they’ve got to start with basic obedience,” Jackie said. To achieve a certification as a service dog takes about 18 months.
But, "Even if the dog is not certified, the bond that they have helps them,” she said of the people who bring their pets to class. She remembered one PTSD-afflicted veteran with night terrors who was close to suicide. The O’Briens began training. Though not a service dog yet, the two developed such a tight bond that the dog, as a matter of course, knows to awaken him and comfort him when the terrors visit.
"The dog is working on certification but he still serves a purpose. Now he’s got a friend,” she added of the veteran. "He’s engaged. He’s a completely different person.” She said that training a dog builds confidence in the veterans and gives those having a difficult time a task to focus on.
The veterans and responders also build bonds with each other. "One vet told us, ‘You guys are not just training dogs; you’re creating a community,” she said.
Paws of War can be reached through its Facebook site (Paws of War Eastern North Carolina) or by calling 252-330-6700.